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Ohio State prepares for winningest Wildcats

Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor

While the Big Ten carries rich basketball history in its own right, there are only a few select programs across the country that deserve to be mentioned with the North Carolinas, Dukes and UCLAs of the world.

Ohio State’s opponent in the Sweet 16 is one of them.

Kentucky owns placement in college basketball’s pantheon of elite programs — not only because it’s second in the history of the NCAA with seven National Championships, or fourth in Final Four appearances, with 13, but because it’s the winningest program in the history of college basketball.

The Wildcats are tops in the NCAA both in all-time wins, with 2,050, and winning percentage, at 76 percent.

Some would argue Kentucky deserves to be placed above North Carolina, Duke and UCLA based on those numbers, along with the level of obsession held by its fan base. The Wildcats’ prominence can be compared favorably to the Buckeyes’ stature in football.

“I think fanatically … that their fans are do-or-die down there, basketball-wise,” OSU coach Thad Matta said Wednesday. “They seem very, very passionate about everything that’s going on.”

The allure of the storied program was enough to get heralded coach John Calipari to resign from his job with Memphis after the 2008 season, when he took the Tigers to the national title game behind starting point guard Derrick Rose.

It was the rich history, likely combined with the contract he received.

The school wanted Calipari enough to offer an eight-year contract worth up to $31.65 million that included two cars, membership to a country club of his choosing and incentives for reaching the Sweet 16, Final Four and bringing another championship to Lexington, Ky., along with ticket benefits for both basketball and football games.

Giving Calipari the most lucrative deal in the country was the price for reaffirming a winning tradition and return to national prominence after the Wildcats played in the NIT the season before he signed on.

“I mean, it’s Kentucky, when you think about all the history that they have,” OSU forward David Lighty said. “(Calipari’s) just brought that much more attention to the Kentucky basketball lure.

“They had a couple years when they were a little down; then Calipari came. Over time, you build your legacy … build your reputation, so that time is now for us.”

After OSU reached the National Championship game in 2007 and earned a No. 2 seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament, Lighty said he hopes the Buckeyes’ continued achievement can help turn the program in something that resembles Kentucky’s.

“It’s going right now, I would say, especially going from my freshman year to now,” he said. “It’s becoming bigger and bigger, and I think it’s going to continue to be that way as long as we keep having success.

Although the Wildcats hold the 7-1 advantage in national titles, the Buckeyes own the tournament’s top overall seed, and will be favored over Calipari’s fourth-seeded team come Friday night in Newark, N.J.

One of the consequences of running a top-flight program is being forced to deal with players turning pro and leaving their teams early. Matta and Calipari are no strangers to such difficulties.

OSU has lost numerous players to the NBA early under Matta’s watch, including top draft selection Greg Oden, Mike Conley and last year’s National Player of the Year, Evan Turner.

Although it’s only Calipari’s second season with Kentucky, he lost No. 1 overall pick John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton last year — his first year with the school. All five players were first-round picks.

“I think he’s probably one of the best,” Matta said. “(He) understands how hard it is when you lose guys. … I admire the job he’s done. X’s and O’s-wise, he’s one of the best in my mind with what he’s done.”

While Turner beat out Wall for the Naismith trophy last season, OSU forward Jared Sullinger is a candidate for this year’s award. Being thrown into the national spotlight has been an unfamiliar adjustment for the Columbus native.

“Off the court, it’s been kind of weird. It’s changed,” Sullinger said. “Normally I could walk the street and get a burger, but now normally I can’t. Sometimes I stop and sign autographs … but that comes along with the territory.”

Tipoff is tentatively scheduled for 9:45 p.m. Friday at the Prudential Center.

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